Addressing a traumatic event, like the recent mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub this month, with high school students can be a challenging task for teachers.
With high school students in particular, there will be some discussion about the event, regardless of whether teachers explicitly mention the incident in class or not, says Benjamin Fernandez, lead school psychologist for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.
He thinks it’s appropriate for teachers to talk briefly about what happened at the beginning of class with high schoolers, but educators need to first understand the situation themselves. Then, they can model calm and appropriate coping skills to students because no matter how old students are, they will take a cue on how to act based on how the adults in their lives are reacting, he says.
And teachers should stick to discussing the facts, says Fernandez, who is also co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.
“These adolescents have easy access to information and some of that information is misinformation so then rumors start and spread just so much faster,” says Samantha Haviland, director of counseling support services for Denver Public Schools. “But then they feel a connection to people through social media also, whether they know them or not, because they get a little bit of that personal interaction that didn’t used to happen.”
Haviland was a student at Columbine High School in 1999 when two students killed 13 of their classmates. She didn’t have access to information as the event unfolded like teens do today.
Educators need to consider students’ cultures, beliefs and family dynamics when addressing these events, she says.
Events like the Orlando shooting may spark highly-charged conversations among teens surrounding hot-button topics like LGBT issues and gun control.
Adults and teachers need to recognize when such conversations occur and that shutting them down can make it difficult for students to process what happened and their own feelings and emotions, says Fernandez. Being able to engage in such conversation can help reduce anger and hate, and promote unity and tolerance, he says.
While Haviland wouldn’t recommend teachers facilitate discussions about these issues in class, if they were to occur, she suggests teachers have a school counselor or an administrator join in.
The best practice for educators when addressing a traumatic event is to share a mass, factual message to high schoolers through the classroom, while staying away from too much detail, she says. Adolescents might really cling onto these details and it can cause secondary trauma, she says. It’s important for parents to be informed and involved, too.
If the event is more in the community rather than related directly to the school, there should be a safe place with counseling and a crisis response team provided in the school for students to go to, if needed, she says.
Research points to a return to normalcy as a primary factor in the healing process, so classrooms should maintain a largely academic environment, she says.
Elementary school students may not have the ability to understand what has happened, she says. High schoolers tend to internalize it much more.
Haviland says traumatic events can really change a community – and hopefully for the better in that communities can become closer and more unified – but it’s a painful process.
The Orlando school counselors, she says, should take care of themselves, too.